Thinking Future, Acting Now: Working Today to Ensure the World’s Children Flourish Tomorrow

This talk was given as a plenary address to the World Forum on Early Care and Education in Macau, China on April 9, 2019 by Nicole Biondi of Innovation Edge (South Africa) and Joe Waters. It has been edited for publication.

When I (Nicole) was little, I had lots of favorite super heroes — He man, Thundercats, Pinky & the Brain, but my favorite, favorite was my grandmother. My grandmother, Mamma, had all the qualities of a great super hero — courage; selflessness; humility; heart and best of all she had superpowers. I’d visit with her and she’d magically transport me into another world as we’d spend hours together playing and telling stories.

And it’s only recently that I’ve realized just how special those moments actually were and how those simple loving storytelling interactions between me and Mamma were helping build critical components of my developing brain. Our relationship and her wonderful love and care for me formed the basis for so much of who I am and what I am able to do today. I am so grateful to Mamma, who by the way, turns 90 this year.

We know, that regardless of where in space and time they may find themselves, there are certain needs that children will always have. Like the need for daily brain-building activities that Mamma met for me. In our talk today, we’ll be taking a look at three of these timeless needs. And we’ll look at them through the lens of global trends that hold both great challenges and opportunities to act now to ensure that the world’s children flourish tomorrow. And throughout our talk we’d like you to hold fast to this statement we’ve adapted from the philosopher and futurist, Buckminster Fuller:

We are the architects of the future. We are not its victims.

Care

Whether they are born today, in 2050 or in the 22nd century, children are always going to need; and have a right to receive; care… responsive, loving care. One of the global trends affecting this timeless need is the accelerating pace of technology. I’d like to share with you, a couple of technological advancements that have already been made in the field of caregiving.

Source: The Toronto Star.

Meet PARO, who at first glance looks like a stuffed toy, but is in fact a therapeutic robot currently being used in more than 30 countries around the world. It’s been used to help care for adults suffering from dementia and children with autism and more recently, the space industry has started investigating whether it might help astronauts deal with loneliness and stress during their missions. This adorable robot, which makes little baby seal sounds when tickled under its chin and gazes up at one with seemingly loving eyes, uses artificial intelligence to ‘learn’ how best to respond to and comfort its owner. It’s clinically proven to lower anxiety, stress, pain & depression, all without needing to be fed! I can certainly think of days I could do with my own emotional support seal!

Source: The Japan Times.

Now meet Vevo — potential candidate for preschool assistant teacher. Complete with bear-shaped head and humanoid body, this robot is able to recognize and greet children as well as record their body temperatures using a thermograph. It even monitors the heart rate and movement of children as they sleep during nap time, with alarms triggered if abnormalities are detected. Its creation was spurred by Japan’s crisis-hit childcare industry, which is suffering from a nationwide staff shortage fueled by the long working hours and low wages. Vevo’s manufacturers believe that these robots could contribute to resolving the shortage of preschool teachers and improving the quality of early childhood care.

It may be possible for machines to care for children and aging adults, but it will never be preferable. As Nicole’s grandmother proves, caregiving is a deeply personal, relational, human task that should never be entirely automated. We all know that children thrive in reciprocal, responsive relationships with loving and devoted carers. We live in an age of relational deficits: with everything from an epidemic of loneliness in Western Europe, so-called “deaths of despair” in the United States, forced and voluntary migration that breaks up families and relationships in Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere, it is clear that we lack for the types of strong, healthy, and flourishing relationships the world needs. As carers of young children, you are among the stewards of the relational health of the human community. By investing in the human, relational tasks of caring for our youngest children, we can replenish our stores of relational equity.

Food

In the time it will have taken to do our talk today, the world would have lost the equivalent of 540 soccer fields of forest — that’s 27 soccer fields every minute.

Photo by Edgar Castrejon on Unsplash

And the main cause of deforestation is agriculture. So much of our progress as a human race or perhaps I should say in this human race has come at a devastating cost to the environment.

And according to the recent Future of Food and Agriculture report, despite all our frantic food production, more than 821 million people are still chronically hungry, and the evidence points to persistent undernourishment in the future.

The United Nations projects that the world’s population will be 9.7 billion by 2050 (we’re on about 7.7 billion at the moment), by 2080 we’ll have reached 10.8, and by 2100 the world’s population will have reached 11.2 billion.

Photo by Carl Nenzen Loven on Unsplash

80% of those 11.2 billion people are likely to live in Africa and South Asia and the majority will live in urban areas, mostly in cities which have not yet been built. It stands to reason given these demographics that the global demand for food will significantly increase, particularly in Africa and South Asia and so will the associated toll on the environment.We simply cannot continue to do things the way they are currently being done.

Stewart Brand tells a marvelous story: New College, Oxford was founded in the late 14th century. The roof of the college dining hall was built of strong and sturdy oak, but oak always becomes infested with beetles. Sure enough in the late 19th century they discovered that the oak beams of their roof were beetle infested. Where would they get the oak trees to replace their roof? A young don suggested that they might have some oak trees on college lands that could be useful. The faculty called in the college forester and asked him about oak. He replied: “well sirs, we were wondering when you’d be asking.” Turns out, when the college was founded, oaks were planted on college lands for when the oak beams in the college hall became beetley. Because, oak always becomes beetley. This plan had been passed down from one college forester to the next: never touch that grove of oak, it’s for the college hall. For over 500 years college forester after college forester had been a steward of trees that he would never see used in the college hall. This illustrates the principle of intergenerational equity and solidarity about as well as any I know.

We have clearly failed to be good stewards of the earth. And, in failing to steward our common home, we haven’t just hurt ourselves, but we have failed to honor the stewardship of those who have come before, and we have broken the bonds of solidarity that connect us with future generations. Inequitably, we are leaving the planet poorer, and with fewer resources, for our children and their children, and thus have failed them before they’ve even been born. The world we have received belongs to those who will follow us and our concern for the timeless needs of all children must not be only for those children we serve today, but — in the framework of the Iroquois people of North America — the children someone else will serve seven generations from today. It is a matter of equity. It is a matter of justice.

Work

In and through work humans exercise their creativity, ingenuity, and strength in service to their own ideals, their families, the local community, and the broader world. These are the characteristics that give work its dignity. Without dignified work, the person does not flourish.

So how do we ensure that today’s children are prepared for the world of work tomorrow? What sort of skills does the baby born today need to enable her to be a flourishing thirtysomething in 2050? When looking at current trends it seems that many around the world are in agreement on the 4 C’s — critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity.

Photo by Ilya Pavlov on Unsplash

I wonder then about the 5th C that seems to be constantly cropping up in future-looking conversations — I’m talking about coding. In his book 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, Yuval Harari tells the reader that perhaps providing children with predetermined skills like coding is not necessarily the best way forward. He says that we might invest a lot of effort in teaching kids to write code only to discover that by 2050, AI can code software far better than humans.

I tend to agree with him and would instead of (or, at least, in addition to coding) advocate that we focus on encouraging the act of play. Science shows that play is essential for children’s positive development and that it enables them to develop the traits, including those 4 Cs, that will help them to thrive in the future — no matter what it may hold.

Photo by Rick Mason on Unsplash

Children’s play is critical to building a future for dignified work, but we must not forget parents and other caregivers today. They too need the skills required to pursue dignified work, to provide for their children and families, and set an example of dignified work for the next generation. Without meaningful work, too many people are prone to despair and loneliness — afflictions all the more likely and all the more threatening in an age of AI, automation, and algorithmic surveillance — that create adverse and stressful environments for parents in sensitive periods of child development. We must not resist technological advances, but we should approach them critically, with an eye towards ensuring their service to our families rather than our service to the machines.

One way we can build a more dignified future of work is by embracing the principle of cooperation.Cooperatives are “people-centered enterprises owned, controlled and run by and for their members to realize their common needs and aspirations.”

The Mondragon Corporation in Spain is a co-operative business organization that competes on international markets using cooperative methods in terms of its “company organization, job creation, both the human and professional development of its workers and a commitment to the development of its social environment.” They have even applied these principles to education in founding the Mondragon University and there is no reason why we can’t build more early childhood cooperatives thus giving a more dignified future of work to the parents, teachers, and students we serve.

We’d like to conclude our talk by honoring every person in this room.

You are here…we are here… because we are all active participants in creating the future we want for generations to come. The work you are doing is at the forefront of forging a more humane, more relational future for the children of today and the children of the 7th generation from today.

And remember, the future is not only 20, 50, or 80 years away. The future begins now. We are its architects not its victims.

Thank you.


Read more about Capita’s collaboration with KnowledgeWorks to chart the future for young children and families.